- Maimonides' Cure of Souls: Medieval Precursor of Psychoanalysis
This book is fascinating. For those of us for whom the study of Maimonides has been rooted in history of thought or in systematic philosophy and theology, this book provides a psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic reading of Maimonides. And, for those of us for whom the study of Freud has been rooted in history of psychoanalysis, this book provides an insight into an important source for some of Freud's most radical ideas. It is Merkur's continuation of the work of Bakan, who died before its completion.
The choice of Maimonides was a good one for several reasons. First, Maimonides' The Eight Chapters, his work on psychology, and his The Guide for the Perplexed existed in translations in Freud's time. Second, Maimonides was a "cultural hero" for assimilating Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who read Maimonides as a "scientist" and "rationalist," creating for themselves a kind of "Jewish Kant." Third, as a modern "cultural hero," Maimonides was almost surely the subject of lectures and conferences at the Vienna lodge of B'nai Brith that Freud attended regularly and in which he also gave lectures. Finally, as Merkur shows, Freud, while not himself observant or even religious in a theological sense, came from an educated Jewish family in which the works of Maimonides would likely have been available.
Chapter One argues that Maimonides saw his chief task as a healer of body and soul. His therapy is composed of two parts: first, practice the opposite virtue or vice until one has reached the golden mean of balanced behavior, and second, believe that sin can be corrected. Teshuva (repentance), in its intellectual as well as its actional dimensions, is, thus, Maimonides' cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Chapter Two presents Maimonides' "intellectualist mysticism," which is "an 'aha' experience of creative inspiration . . . when someone 'gets' an idea . . . when 'the penny drops.'" Then, "through engaging in a certain specified intrapsychic [End Page 154] process," it is possible to create "the possibility of radical reform of the condition of human experience." Merkur identifies this process as "meditation" (hitbonenut). It is accomplished by careful reasoning and is followed by "practicing the presence of God," i.e., "a cognitively rich and varied process of inspiration that he [Maimonides] identified with biblical prophecy . . . engaging God in a prophetic dialogue." Bakan and Merkur call the whole "rational mysticism."
As I read Maimonides in his twelfth-century context, I find that he teaches that there is a "post-philosophic" experience of "being in the presence of God." Bakan and Merkur, however, dispute my claim and propose that there is nothing "post"-philosophic at all. Rather, that "the bliss is never postrational or nonrational . . . indicate[s] that a cognitively limited or seemingly empty experience was emphatically not the content of Maimonides' contemplative experience." I think Bakan and Merkur, by denying the extramental existence of the Intelligences and the intellect, a belief that was common in medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophical theology, have distorted Maimonides and, therefore, also his understanding of the ultimate religious experience. However, others scholars share Bakan and Merkur's reading of Maimonides, and they may be right. Nonetheless, I suspect that the denial of the postrational is a projection of modern sensibilities and conceptualities.
Chapter Three argues that, for Maimonides, imagination is central to prophecy, but imagination is also the source of sin in that it allows humans to imagine that evil is good. Thus, imagining a bad act to be good induces one to actional sin, and imagining God to be anthropomorphic induces one to theological sin. Maimonides handled theological sin by making all prophecy (except that of Moses) a metaphor, i.e., a dream or a vision. Freud must have been fascinated by this "book on dreams and visions" in which the images of the imagination can cause illness / sin.
Chapter Four argues that Maimonides openly admits that sacred texts, as well as his own text, use exoteric-esoteric methods of teaching; the interpretation is...